When Chris "SparkGuy" Downie founded SparkPeople 10 years ago, weight loss wasn't the only thing on his mind. He wanted to help people be healthier, sure, but he also wanted to show them that setting small goals en route to larger ones could help them achieve success in all areas of their lives.
SparkPeople grew into the country's largest diet website and helped millions become healthier along the way. But most of you didn't stop there, including Elle Newmark, whom you'll meet today.
As Chris wrote in his NYT best-selling book, "The Spark":
"At the convention, I also met Elle Newmark, the member who landed a major book deal as part of her SparkPeople adventure and embarked on an exciting trip to Italy, the setting of her book. But she didn’t stop there, as she told us:
I just spent a month in India, researching my next book. That little hill in California near my home is laughable compared to the Himalayas where life is entirely vertical. I spent almost two weeks at altitudes between 6,000 and 8,000, and was able to see and do everything. This enhanced physical ability creates a sense of well-being, self-sufficiency, and plain old power that is priceless. I am 62 years old and I feel like the world is mine for the taking. I can go places and do things that would have been unthinkable 3 years ago. My SparkPeople experience wasn’t a dream come true, I never even dreamed this. All that happened to me was beyond what I ever dreamed."
That second book, "The Sandalwood Tree," has been published, and we're thrilled that Elle has been able to achieve such success. She took some time recently to answer some questions via email. As a fellow writer, I was truly inspired by her tale. I hope you will be too. She is as eloquent in email as she is in her prose, so I urge you to keep reading!
dailySpark: dailySpark: You've been a member of SparkPeople for several years now. How did you find the site?
Elle: On a trip to New York in 2002 I was chatting with a literary agent who had lost a tremendous amount of weight and written a successful book about it. Having struggled with weight, like most American women, I was as interested in her book as she was in mine. We met for coffee and I spotted her immediately. At 5-foot-10, she swanned into the room wearing a chic, size 8 power suit. She was beautiful, and I was impressed. It was she who told me about SparkPeople.
dailySpark: How did the momentum and confidence from your healthy lifestyle adventure lead to your writing and launching your first book--and getting the book deal? (That's a great story!)
Elle: I used to tell people – particularly my kids, who were always after me to get more exercise – that I simply couldn't fit any more exercise into my day because I needed to work slowly and gently with my body because of my medical history. Twenty-five years ago I had major back surgery, leaving me with 14 fused vertebrae and followed by osteoporosis, a hip replacement, a shattered knee, a broken arm. My body was frail and prone to break easily. Nevertheless, taking my friend's advice, I visited SparkPeople and that made me see exercise in a different way. Thinking myself already frail, I dared not risk activities that might leave me injured. But taking SparkPeople's advice about starting with tiny steps, and gradually moving up to slightly longer routine at a comfortable pace, made all the difference. My small, initial steps were enough to deny the excuses I had made in the past. SparkPeople demanded consistency. I learned not only to be consistent, but also that the rewards would follow.
This was very important, because while I had always been a writer, I was not a consistent writer. But when I started seeing results on the scale, and in my stamina and strength, I upped the stakes on the literary scale as well. I decided to write, as my second novel, an extended metaphor involving a chef (my father was a master chef) and political intrigue in early Renaissance Venice. This was a more complicated book than I had attempted before, but I was feeling good, I was feeling healthy, I was feeling confident, and for the first time I thought, "Maybe I can really do this."
When I finished my book, I did all the things you were supposed to do to get it published. I approached NY agents through polite query letters written according to established form, and in return, I received a pile of rejection letters, written according to form. But upon finishing my novel, I had a Spark Insight: I realized that I had stepped out of my comfort zone starting small with exercise to build a new level of stamina, a new outlook. Maybe stepping out of the established box again, taking small, focused, disciplined steps towards my goal would assist in getting published.
I decided to self publish, and felt a small glow of triumph when I saw my book available for sale on Amazon. And yet I wanted the real deal, I dreamed of bestseller status, and somehow my Amazon listing looked so lonely and obscure, and I knew that more was needed. So I decided to hold a virtual book launch party. I built a website that would be active on a specific date, contacting potential partner websites – they would announce my "party" to their email subscribers, in exchange for my featuring their downloads at the party. I sent homemade, individually chocolate-dipped cookies along with copies of the book and book launch invitations to book reviewers. (More than 1,000 cookies!) And finally, I invited several hundred New York agents to the "party" as well.
The day arrived; the website got hits; the book started selling. By lunch, I was getting offers of representation from major agents. In less than two weeks, the book went to auction, and I had a two-book publishing deal with Simon and Schuster. Small steps, steady progress, huge reward.
Before SparkPeople = overweight, unpublished, depressed, wandering in the abyss and always hungry.
After SparkPeople = slimmer, more energy and stamina, and more confident. Still hungry, but hungry for life.
dailySpark: What goals did you achieve with the help of the SparkPeople community?
Elle: I don't even know where to begin. I started with SparkPeople only hoping to lose a few pounds and become a little more fit, but I found that one thing connects to another. I started noticing changes in other areas of my life, even in areas where I hadn't set explicit goals. My mood was generally cheerier. I found myself smiling for no reason. I took more time and interest in my appearance.
I achieved my first goal – 15 pounds – rather quickly, because it wasn't a terribly large number. But I kept doing the SparkPeople program because I liked it – it improved the quality of my day. I also hoped to improve my general health. All I did was walk; I didn't go to gyms or use fancy machines. But I live in hilly territory, with orange and lemon orchards, and some of the hills are very steep. There's nothing more challenging than a walk up or even down such a slope, and I actually worked up a sweat, from exercise, for the first time in my life.
dailySpark: Chris "SparkGuy" Downie is one of your biggest fans. Tell us a bit about how you two first met.
Elle: With SparkPeople, Chris has created a method for incorporating different areas of our lives and allowing them to interact with each other and benefit from each other. I found that, indeed, my healthier body was interwoven with my higher productivity in writing, because of the increased stamina that both of those activities required. So I'm an equally big fan of Chris for creating this variegated lifestyle that is enriched with many facets.
I first contacted Chris to invite him to sponsor the book launch party for "The Book of Unholy Mischief." But we didn't meet in person until I went down to the SparkPeople Convention in San Diego. Actually, I was going to meet a friend I had made online through SparkPeople, who I'd been chatting with for about two years. But since I was going to the convention, Chris asked if I would mind saying a few words about how incorporating a new lifestyle had helped me on the road to my book deal. Of course, I was only too happy to oblige.
dailySpark: What advice do you have for other SparkPeople members who are aspiring writers?
Elle: I have the same advice for writers as I have for any SparkPeople or any people endeavoring to reach a goal. As Winston Churchill said, with the shadow of bombs falling over London, "Never, never, never, never give up."
dailySpark: How did setting health and fitness goals help you achieve success in other aspects of life?
Elle: SparkPeople teaches that routine is important; certain things must happen every day, like your food log, and exercise. This discipline transferred to my writing – I must write a certain amount every day, I must edit. I found that my set of must-do's were creating a web of healthy living about me.
A principle goal of mine was not just to write, but to be a better writer. One of the reasons I had always given for not exercising was that I didn't have the time – I had to write. When you're on a streak, you can't break the streak. What if I went for a walk and came back to writer's block? We couldn't have that! But the biggest surprise of all was that my SparkPeople regimen made me more prolifically creative. Some of my best metaphors were born strolling through a shady orchard. The solutions to many writerly questions concerning point of view or dialog appeared in flashes while I struggled up one of the steep hills near my house. Soon, I no longer thought of my walks as exercise. They were periods of thinking; they were my writing time. I started carrying around a little pad and pencil, but soon I was interrupting my walks too constantly to write down ideas, and I had to get a tape recorder. Finally, I started to compete with myself to walk more, to write more, and that's when you know you're getting serious.
dailySpark: Your latest book, "The Sandalwood Tree," is set in India as it gains independence from British rule. Your first book, "The Book of Unholy Mischief"/"The Chef's Apprentice," was set in Italy during the early Renaissance. How do you research your works?
Elle: I start by loving a place, I craft the story-line, and then I start reading its history at the time of my story. But to describe the sights, smells and sounds of a place, to really create a tangible word image of an exotic locale, I need to travel. I lived in Germany for seven years and spent much time traveling in Italy. I doubt anyone could visit Venice without feeling the weight of its history and without sensing the mysterious aura of the place.
I had yearned to see India for as long as I could remember, but was intimidated by the profound otherness of the place. It took me many years of travel before I worked up the nerve to visit, in 2001. But again the exotic experience served as my muse, and I started writing "The Sandalwood Tree". I also started researching 19th century English social customs, British Rule, and Partition. Once I had a decent understanding of the history, I went back to India for another trip, to add a final polish to my prose, and hoping to evoke the richness of that country for my readers.
dailySpark: Your first book has a strong food component. What role does food play in your own life, and why did you choose to make it key theme in your book?
Elle: My father was an Italian master chef, so I was raised not only with an appreciation of fine food, but with the sense that food is representative of one's work ethic and one's aesthetic. With so much baggage attending to food, weight loss can be a challenge. Our family, like so many, celebrated over food, condoled with food, showed love with food. But also, we taught and learned and derived our livelihood from food. SparkPeople taught me the balance necessary to appreciate food as an element of health, along with exercise and discipline.
But the fact that "The Book of Unholy Mischief" is so food-centric is not simply because of this food-focus in my life. Food is a profound metaphor for all our needs, for wealth or simplicity, for discipline or excess. The dramatic potential of food is tremendous!
dailySpark: As a writer, how do you use SparkPeople's goal-setting techniques to meet your deadlines?
Elle: As I mentioned before, the aspect of SparkPeople that revolutionized my work is the requirement of consistency. Exercise and meal planning are examples of daily ritual that focus on a long-term goal and lifestyle change. Daily writing, researching and editing are similarly difficult disciplines, with daily work aimed at a long term goal. You can't expect to lose weight or get fit with a sudden one week burst of effort, and neither can you expect to research, write, edit, re-write and sell a novel in fits and starts of work.
dailySpark: I read that you crossed off a life's goal: Rent Italian villa. Tell us a bit about that trip and what made it so special. I heard some SparkPeople friends came to visit you. What was it like to meet them for the first time?
Elle: Oh, that was a marvelous trip! You're right, I'd always dreamed of spending some time in a villa in Northern Italy, near where my family came from. I had the idea to hold a writer's workshop and retreat for a week, in a house in the village of and Lenno, on Lake Como, and arranged some speaking engagements in nearby Milan as well. But I am completely willing to mix business with pleasure, so I took the house for a full month, and before the workshop I hosted family and friends, including some of the wonderful friends I had made through SparkPeople.
That month was special in so many ways, not least was the mingling of my passions -- travel, grandchildren, writing, and friends. Meeting my Spark-friends had the potential, of course, to feel odd -- to share a bond with someone you've never met might seem strange. But in fact, they were every bit as lively, lovely, loving and fun as I had expected. That month was truly one of life's gifts to me.
dailySpark: What's next for you?
Elle: My next book is largely written. It takes place in the rain forest of Central America, where I traveled about 10 years ago. So next is more work -- editing, re-writing, editing some more. I'm glad to say that "next" is more of the same: following my passions.
What has SparkPeople inspired you to achieve? What is your passion? Have you read Elle's books?
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